Civilisation and Climate

A review of Historical Perspectives of Climate Change by James Fleming

It is the Greens’ wont to abandon all advance of modern civilisation and return us to the Middle Ages!

The Greens want us to abandon civilisation, so it is often proclaimed. In fact, reducing fossil fuel usage and the promotion of renewable energy sources will have no such effect. But nor will they prevent the release into the carbon cycle of all that long-buried carbon. And so they will not stop the marvellous and manifold slow-burn that on the one hand keeps modern civilisation purring along, while on the other hand (so they say) is slowly destroying it.

The reasons that the release of all this buried carbon will not be stopped with the implementation of climate change policy are mostly technological: no renewable process is even close to substituting for base-load coal-powered plants; there is no renewable substitute for the high energy mass transportation arcing across the globe day and night burning avgas; neither for base-load nor transportation are we even close to a carbon-capture burning process; nor is anyone daring to tell the Saudi’s to plug their oil wells and get back on their camels.

Thus, all and any action on climate change that has been placed upon the table for serious consideration will only ever slow down the release of the buried carbon, and so only slow the warming by a few decades or so. Otherwise we can say (if we permit a little poetic licence) that indeed we should say good-bye to modern civilisation …and back to the Middle Ages we go…

The easily discernible mismatch of the policy rationale with the outcomes of the proposed policies has prompted many attempts to explain the (coalescence of) motivations otherwise. Indeed, some Greens do have a hippy-ideal of a semi-subsistent agrarian future, however impractical such a transformation of our cities – our civil-ization – might be. A more moderate explanation is that renewables are a good thing for other reasons (environmentally, politically), and that this AGW scare (consciously or unconsciously) serves but to facilitate our inevitable transition to them. More sinister is that vested interests (in more nuclear power, more taxes, more power to the environment industry etc) are harnessing and exciting genuine concern in a Baptists and Bootleggers kind of way.


James Fleming

James Fleming as he appears on his Classic Articles site (link)

However we may come to understand what is going on in this controversy, we can always return to the fact that the AGW scare is grounded in an argument giving that, by way of the environment, civilisation is impacting profoundly upon itself (even upon its civilised appreciation of the beauty of nature). This is familiar to us in the pollution campaigns of the 1960s and 70s, but it does pay to go back much further than this and compare the current movement with earlier episodes of western environmentalism during previous centuries.

One of the rewarding features of Fleming’s Historical Perspectives on Climate Change comes where Fleming draws our attention to the all-but-forgotten environmental debates of these past centuries, where climate also came into play with claims of civilisation’s affect upon civilisation. Fleming gives particular attention to the 18th century debate of, and mostly in, the America colonies, where many scientists and learned gentlemen were persuaded to the idea of anthropogenic climate change. The difference with today is that the effect was seen as not global but local, and (at least in the debate Fleming cites) moderating and beneficial. Civilisation had a civilising effect on climate.

Yes, we have been through this all before! Differently we travel but across the same terrain. And herein is the redemption the historical perspective affords: whenever you get sucked up into the novelty of the present, the history comes up sobering, grounding. It is to Fleming’s credit that he began to dig under the surface so early, and went to press with this major study in 1998, even if this was too late for AGW’s political triumph at Kyoto. Continue reading

The Anatomy of Virtuous Corruption

A review of Why We Disagree About Climate Change by Mike Hulme

The Machiavellian Way

It is a truth, not widely proclaimed, that the principal founder of the modern social sciences was the notorious atheist Niccolò Machiavelli. After a change of regime cut short an illustrious political career in torture and banishment from his beloved Florence, he would sit at his desk at the end of his working day and contemplate what made society tick. In particular he wanted to uncover the internal causation of civil prosperity, and otherwise of civil dysfunction and decay. Late-night imagined conversations with the ancients were the inspiration for this marvellous renaissance of social science methodology, where the prevailing institutionalised dogmas were cast not in terms of their truth-value, but in terms of their social effect, their social power. Machiavelli did not use our words ‘ideology’, ‘episteme’ or ‘paradigm’ the way we now do, but he knew as much as Marx, Weber, Foucault, and Kuln, and as much as Goebbels and Mao, that those who prevail over what-is-taken-for-truth, are those who command society.

Why We Disagree About Cimate Change by Mike HulmeAfter his death, the secret and subversive writings of this Ishmael of the Renaissance were eventually sucked into illicit circulation and across the Alps so as to torment both Protestant and Catholic divines, some of whom must have delved the depths of this stark social analysis – we know this from the way they most clearly delineate its dangers. And his analysis of religion is what hit them with the most shocking force.

It was not that Machiavelli condemned the propagation of religious dogmas by the state. Rather, he agreed with the Roman historian Livy, that, in times of peace, the state-institution of religion is the principle means by which social leaders can keep society from tearing itself apart, even allowing it to prosper. But while Machiavelli praised the healthy social effect of the state-management of religions in ancient Roman (at least according to Livy’s fabulous account), he found the management of religion in modern Rome inherently self-destructive and irredeemably decadent.

From his unfettered pen flowed a most unspeakably damming assessment of the church leadership, a stark clinical analysis now well corroborated by our histories of these times. But this was no cause for cheer among the Protestants, for he also attacked the Christian religion itself, for inadvertently promoting this corruption and decadence. Such Christian teachings as turning-the-other-cheek, and the deferred to the after-life of reward for virtuous social actions, these only served to keep the virtuous down and trampled by those who could affect the appearance of piety even as they lost all sight of virtue in their pursuit of their own interested and this-worldly power. This placed in the firing line, as much the Roman curia, also Martin Luther – that once-young conscience-driven activist who had became increasingly dogmatic and authoritarian under the protection of his supporting princes. And so by the 17th century we find across the European states sporadically ravaged by internecine warfare and trying desperately to reassert their spiritual authority, that this brave Tuscan atheist with his powerful analysis of the realpolitik won the terrible reputation, as, himself, a diabolical threat to civil virtue and social order. Continue reading

An Insider’s History of the Global Warming Scare.

Review: The Discovery of Global Warming, by Spencer Weart, Harvard, 1st edition, 2003

The Discovery of Global Warming 1st EdClimate Change Science as it is known today is a very young science. Many of those that first raised the alarm about our bringing upon ourselves catastrophic global warming, like Schneider and Hansen, are still with us today. In the late 1960s and 70s concern was mounting about the possible local and then global affect of pollution on climate, including cooling and warming. But it was not until the 1980s that the alarm over carbon dioxide driven warming really began.

Of the most recent past, can one really write a history? The closer an account of events moves towards the present the more recedes the special virtues we seek in history, and so it is hard to pick out which recent developments really matter in the long run. With such caveats Spencer Weart begins the final chapter of his The Discovery of Global Warming (2003), but they might just as well apply to the entire subject, and this is all the more so from the sceptic’s point of view; for the question of want has been discovered, if anything at all, may well be revealed to all in good time.

But in different ways for the advocate and the sceptic, the subject is too important to leave alone. For Weart, it is by tracing how scientists, politicians, journalists, and ordinary citizens pushed and pulled at one another in the past, we can be better prepared to deal with the fatal issues that confront us.  Whereas for the sceptics, the value in examining the history of the global warming scare is to discover just how it was that this came to be seen as a fatal issue – threatening no less the survival of humanity – so as to understand the phenomenon of alarmism as it manifests in modern society (see eg Scared to Death by Booker & North).

At this blog, our particular interest is in how this scare was manifest and propagated by scientists, and through the great institutions and organs of sciences, upon a grotesque distortion of conventional scientific practice. And one thing that is well demonstrated, acknowledged and even promoted in Weart’s history is that the development of the science (and so its corruption) is almost inextricable from – in fact it thrived upon – the very scare it generated across the politique.


The Discovery of Global Warming story begins by taking us back beyond the doomsayers of our time, to the early 19th century, when the French scientist Joseph Fourier discovered that it is greenhouse warming – the trapping of heat by the reflection of infra-red radiation – that explains the retention of the sun’s heat in the atmosphere. Next it was a contemporary of Darwin and Lyell, John Tyndall, who measured the reflective qualities of specific gasses, only to find that the main atmospheric gasses, oxygen and nitrogen, were transparent to this radiation, and so performed no such reflective warming. Tyndall soon discovered methane and CO2 to be greenhouse gasses, but as there were only traces of these in the atmosphere it could not be these that are keeping us warm. Soon he had the answer, that it is in fact water vapour that is the predominant greenhouse warmer of our planet. So, by the late 19th century, with the greenhouse life-nurturing effect of our moisture-laden air well establish, the next question was of climate stability and the cause of its known variation. Continue reading

Insecticide Alarmism, the DDT Ban and the Global Warming Scare

On the opening day of the Copenhagen Climate Change conference, the US EPA declared that Carbon Dioxide is a pollutant of the air. The long anticipated declaration that a natural component of air is a threat to public health was easily mocked, especially as it implies that simply to breathe is to pollute. A political motivation for this decision was evident: with the ‘Cap and Trade’ bill floundering in the Senate, this decision would permit regulation of CO2 emissions (under the existing Clean Air Act) without passing any new legislation. And it came just in time for the USA delegation at Copenhagen to point at least to this step as demonstrating USA readiness to take action on climate change.

William Ruckelshaus

William Ruckelshaus, the 1st head of the US EPA, acted quickly and against the evidence to ban DDT

This was not the first time that the EPA was seen to be acting on political consideration with little regard for the evidence. In fact, its first significant achievement, the banning of DDT in 1972, gives all the appearance of a political decision against the presented evidence. In this post I want to open up discussion of the links between recent Global Warming Alarmism and the organic insecticides scare of the 1960s and 1970s.

Continue reading

Revolutionary Science: Post-Normal Climate Science and neo-Marxism

In 1845, at the age of 27, Karl Marx penned a page of comments on his reading of the Hegelian materialist philosopher, Ludwig Feuerbach. His 11th and final comment translates as:

Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.

Wikipedia provides the conventional understanding of these 11 theses as ‘identify political action as the only truth of philosophy. The final and most famous thesis, the one that would become Marx’s epitaph, is here given to mean that ‘philosophy’s validity is in how it informed action.’

The eleventh thesis on Feuerbach in the original signature of Karl Marx

This last thesis, ‘Thesis 11,’ would become the dictum of the burgeoning cabal of Marxists in the social sciences during the 1970s. They saw their scholarship as revolutionary ‘praxis,’ believing that the underlying validation of their theorising and research was the extent to which it advanced the revolutionary cause. To them, the praxis of science, like everything else, reduced to the political – which is the politics of historical materialism, the mechanism of the class struggle that determines the course of history.

Like the saints of the Apocalypse, with their pens for swords, these academics worked to advance the coming of the New Jerusalem. And so they despised their liberal colleagues, well meaning perhaps, but only serving to perpetuate the reign of the bourgeois with all its contradictions and class oppressions.

The idea that the validation of knowledge is political was a radical innovation in the modern secular university. But it only really took hold in the social sciences, and only until the 1980s. What I want to do in this post is compare this Marxist theory of science with another theory of science now popular in a natural science. This is the Post-Normal Science (PNS) of Jerry Ravetz that I introduced in a previous post, and which has been used to account for some of the peculiar and apparently anti-science features of Climate Change Science. And in doing so, I will be raising such questions as:

  • What is the relationship between these two doctrines?
  • To what extent does the one inform the other?
  • Is PNS something of a new praxis for a new apocalyptic science of nature? Continue reading

Post-normal science and the corruption of climate science

During the last few weeks there have been a number of attempt by AGW Alarmists to reach out to the sceptics. These included two guest posts on Watts Up With That. The most recent, by Judith Curry, discussed how trust in climate research might be rebuilt. Willis Eschenbach’s scathing response – included a wish that the trust in the pseudo-science of climate change is never rebuilt – pulled a chorus of approving comment. The other attempt was by a less well known figure in the climate change debate, the philosopher of science, Jerry Ravetz. It turns out – and I was not the only one surprised not to know this – that Ravetz has been working in the background of this controversy since the mid 1980s. His intervention also drew heavy criticism from Eschenbach, and also from an anonymous blogger known as ‘ScientistForTruth.’

These were indeed two brave essays into this highly charged sceptical domain deserving the interest they received. But it is Ravetz’s intervention that is of particular interest to us here because he is primarily concerned with epistemology and scientific methodology. In fact, Ravetz believes that the conditions of knowledge in environmental sciences are so new and extraordinary that they require a new methodology. Since 1986 (earlier?) he has been advocating this new methodology for environmental science – and most particularly for the science of climate change.

Participatory Approaches to Environmental Policy, 2001

Did Ravetz’s encouragement of participatory science legitimate corruption of scientific processes of the type now under investigation at CRU and the UN?

The new condition of practice prevailing in climate change science is not, as you might have guess, the post-modern condition that Jean-Francois Lyotard, famously describes in his essay of that name (translated in 1984). Rather it is the post-normal condition. And because climate change science is in a post-normal condition, normal science practice will fail. Thus, it is incumbent on scientists to abandon normal scientific practices and turn to this new way of doing science. Radical stuff! But was anyone listening?

Well apparently some were. A number of the prominent advocates of AGW, including Stephen Schneider, Hans von Storch and Mike Hulme refer to Ravetz approvingly. Von Storch and Hulme recognise climate science to be in this post-normal condition, and, in different ways, they support his call for a methodological revolution (watch this blog for more on their interpretations of PNS).

Now, it has always been my view that down through the history of science the various popular philosophies of science have rarely affected a direct and intended influence on the practice of science – they remain little more than a sideshow to the course and nature of its advance. Newtonian science may have been marketed on the continent as the marvellous product of Lockean doctrine of no-innate-ideas and all-we-know-arrises-from-the-senses. But in practice Newton’s mathematical investigations were another story. One exception to this rule is the German philosopher and physicist, Ernst Mach – with his strict alignment of knowledge with experience he seems to have influence the heated debates of a century ago in theoretical sub-atomic physics – and maybe you could make an argument for Karl Popper with his (new?) method of falsification. But here with Ravetz we may have another exception. Well, that is, if the blogger ‘ScientistForTruth’ (SFT) is right about his impact on the most controversial science of our day.

In a posting prior to Climategate (Climate Change and the Death of Science) and in the WUWT controversy, SFT argues that the methodological recommendations of Ravetz (and his colaborator Silvio Funtowicz) has influence climate change scientists so as to legitimate the corruption of normal scientific practices by political practices and outright activism. PNS promotes just the sort of corruption of normal scientific practices that are now under investigation at the University of East Anglia and at the United Nations. Continue reading

The Blog: a new mechanism of scientific review?

If Climategate, and the ensuing controversy, has given us nothing else, it have exposed shocking examples of how scientific processes of review can become so corrupted that bad science survives and thrives in the suppression or diversion of sound criticism. There is evidence of corruption at every turn of the process: from the apparent neglect of the proper checks of facts and data behind articles subject to peer review, to the obstruction of the normal critical processing of published papers – and this occurring in journals of the highest impact, and including the refusal to release the primary data upon which the published findings could be tested.

Climate science insiders (and outsiders) could see what was going on all along. And certainly anyone who cared to follow the controversy over the Hockey Stick graph after its publication in Nature in 1998 – and then prominently in the IPCC report of 2001 – they could detect dysfunction in these critical processes. But it would take the leaking of the Climategate emails to release more than a decade of pent-up protest breaking though the official silence, deflection and obfuscation.

Steve McIntyre

Climate Audit blogger Steve McIntyre as he emerged in a profile in The Guardian, 9 Feb 2010

The momentum of Climategate permitted at last a critical reading of the IPCC 4th assessment report. Until this time any questioning, any challenge to the reports from outsiders, had been shouted down with the mantra that we should ignore anything but the proper peer-reviewed sources, and we should allay any doubts by trusting the assessment of these sources in the ‘gold standard’ of such authority, the IPCC reports. And throughout the heat of the emails scandal this mantra was shouted all the louder. Closer scrutiny of the 2007 report put the lie to this claim, revealing that in fact some of its most alarmist and controversial claims about the impacts of the predicted warming ran roughshod over peer-review science to establish an obscured authority via reference to ‘grey literature.’

As I write, we are now passing the point where the more this ‘gold standard’ mantra is chanted, the more foolish its choir appears, and the more legitimacy is awarded its critics. Blocked for so long, the pipes are clearing, and the normal critical processes of science look likely to start flow again – criticism will be permitted, primary data will be released and the claims of ‘certain’ and ‘settled’ science will recede. In the meantime, while waiting for this to unfold, we can pause to reflect on how the breakthrough was achieved, and consider in particular the appearance of a new mechanism of review that emerged heroic during this brief episode of scientific corruption. I refer to the extraordinary corrective role played by the blog. Continue reading

The Creeping Tolerance of Pseudo-Science

How do we explain so-called ‘Glaciergate?’

Glaciergate refers to a claim made in the IPCC 4th assessment report (2007) that, at the present rate of warming, all the Himalayan glaciers are likely to disappear by 2035. If these glaciers did all disappear, it would have devastating consequences for millions of people living downstream who rely on the glaciers for year-round supply of water. And so if this were likely to happen soon, then it would be the causes for some alarm for all these peoples and their governments. When a report submitted to the Indian government in 2009 brought this claim into question, the head of the IPCC called it ‘voodoo science.’ Only in January 2010, after it had scandalised the press, did the IPCC retract the claim.

How exactly the 2035 date made it into the IPCC report remains unclear, but we do know that the (non-peer review) WWF report cited for the claim was in turn based on information in a magazine article (New Scientist) which was based on a single interview with a single glaciologist who claims his speculation was never so precise as to propose a dated prediction.

What makes this so scandalous for science is that it seemed that anyone with any expertise would not support the claim — in fact it would be absurd to suggest that such large masses of ice could melt so fast. And many had already said so. Expert reviewers had queried the claim before the report was published, and others did so very publicly after it was published, and long before the scandal and the retraction.

As outrageous as the whole affair appears to outsiders, there are those who would say that we should not be surprised by the survival in scientific documents of such unsubstantiated claims as this. In fact, critics of such pseudo-science show how the persistence in scientific literature of such unsubstantiated and/or refuted claims is not at all unusual. And as Bjorn Lomborg (and also, more recently, Aynsley Kellow) has shown, such phoney science is most especially prevalent in the environmental sciences.

Martin Luther greasing the Peasants' book

Politicised Science (Theology) in the 16th Century: Martin Luther depicted by Catholic opponents greasing the Peasants' boot during the Peasants' War - the 'buntschuch' was the symbol of their rebellion. In fact, Luther was to use his status as a theologian to condone the slaughter of the 'marauding' peasants by their princes' armies.

The Politicisation of Science

In a speech of 2003 the famous fiction writer, Michael Crichton, shows how there has been a creeping toleration of pseudo-science in government-funded science during the latter decades of the 20th century. This is where claims are upheld despite the fact that there is a lack of scientific evidence for them, or the apparent evidence has been show to be unsound. He cites recent climate science as constituting the most extreme example yet.

In the history of the movement to mitigate anthropogenic global warming (AGW) there has often been an implicitly or explicitly stated licence to exaggerate the negative impacts. This is so as to raise the alarm with frightening scenario in order to prompt people and governments into action. Here is one of the founders of the movement, Stephen Schneider, talking to Discover magazine in 1989:

On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but – which means that we must include all doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climate change. To do that we need to get some broad based support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, means getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have.

Given this licence to raise the alarm by bending the facts, we should therefore not be surprised that, after the Glaciergate scandal emerged, the author overseeing the chapter that included the 2035 melt claim would be reported defending the inclusion of this claim, despite knowing it came from outside the peer review process, because it related to several countries in this region and their water sources. Well, yes, that is a reason that it is important to get it right. But he goes on to say: we thought that if we can highlight it, it will impact policy-makers and politicians and encourage them to take some concrete action. What he seems to be suggesting is that a claim that was not on good authority was included because it would cause alarm.

While exaggerated predictions of future doom is a big part of AGW alarmism, it is not the only problem. There is also the claims about the degenerate conditions of the world as it is. Lomborg’s book, The Sceptical Environmentalist is subtitled measuring the real state of the world as a challenge to the annual State of the World report and its ‘litany’ of environment ills, declining from bad to worse. On the evidence, as Lomborg sets forth, things are not so bad, and mostly seem to be getting better. How could it be that the accepted science could be so wrong? Continue reading

Why is Global Warming Alarmism of interest to the history of science?

Let me begin this blog by explaining why I think Global Warming Alarmism is of such importance to the history of science that it may even offer us new insights into the nature of modern science.

The illustration from the title page of Practica über die grossen und manigfaltigen Coniunctionen der Planeten die im jat MDXXiiii  by Leonhard Rynmann published in Nuremburg in 1523

The illustration from the title page of Practica über die grossen und manigfaltigen Coniunctionen der Planeten die im jat MDXXiiii by Leonhard Rynmann

Firstly, it is a powerful and pervasive movement in the natural sciences. In the past decade it has come to involve most of the grand old natural science institutions, from the journal Nature to the Royal Society and the Nobel Institute, and it has even generated its own specialist institutions such as CRU [*], Goddard (NASA) and the UN’s IPCC.  Global warming is linked to research funding, not just in climate science, but across the natural sciences, and human induced global warming has been linked to all sorts of (mostly judged degenerative) changes in the natural world.

Secondly, there is the problem of its dubious evidence-base. This is what marks it for special attention: at the height of its power, the scientific evidence gives no reason for alarm. The evidence suggests that the warming of the late 20th century was not outside the natural variation that has proved tolerable (if not advantageous) to civilisation. Nor is there evidence that the recommended program of CO2 emission reduction will significantly affect cooling.

Thirdly, there is the unusual landscape of vested interests that could be proposed to be causing this distortion of the science. While it does now seem that climate science funding policy is perpetuating the scare, and that governments have created vested interests to help prevent the supposed catastrophe – e.g., investment in renewable energy, energy conservation, and trade and tax on CO2 emissions – there was yet no obvious external vested interest in emission reductions in the first place. Instead, potential candidates for vest interest lobbying in the field of greenhouse emissions, like the mining, oil or energy lobby – who have an apparent interest on the side of the sceptics – are now often found overtly supporting the alarmism.

These are the broad reasons why, in my view, Global Warming Alarmism is of interest to the history of science. However, it is my experience that most folks interested in the history of science are not in the climate scepticism camp, and so they will find objection to my second reason, and therefore they will attach an entirely different significance to this movement. If you are firm in the view that the proposal that CO2 emissions is causing catastrophic global warming is well supported by the evidence, then this site will be of little interest to you. I can only recommend, if you have not already done so, that you review the evidence yourself, especially that presented on the blogs (yes blogs!) Climate Audit and Watts Up With That. Otherwise, I bid a polite good-bye. Continue reading